Five or so years back I embarked on a serious van conversion experiment. For my project, I used the following kit: One diesel van, large enough for two, fitted out with sleeping arrangements, food storage, a gas cooking surface, and a small refrigerator. Once everything was assembled, the conversion project took about a week, though many people stretch it out over many more than that. The longer the better, really. You can take this exercise at your own pace. There’s no right way.
The conversion process is dead-bang simple. Take the above kit and pack it full of food, plenty of beer, and backpacks stuffed with hiking equipment. Fly fishing gear helps too, though it’s not required. A surfboard or a kayak would also be a nice addition. When all the gear and food are in place for the conversion, simply collect a willing partner, and take the van on a long, winding journey through New Zealand’s breathtaking Southern Alps.
Kiwis make vans out of anything, actually. I even saw a motorcycle towing a small, self-built trailer with a bed and some intriguingly-designed drawers that I’ll consider to be a van too.
Just like that, anybody, even a dedicated truck person like myself who may have regularly scoffed at the whole #vanlife movement, will be converted into a born again Van Person®.
Even though the first serious adventure road trip I ever went on was an axle-busting hellride over barely there dirt/rock roads in central Baja far from any kind of assistance that my friends and I took on in a late-80s two-wheel-drive van with total success, I’ve nevertheless always feared that a van wouldn’t be as tough or as off-road capable as a truck. Or maybe it was just that they didn’t look as tough as a truck. A dumbass aesthetic thing.
She gets it. Photo: Hilary Bird/Unsplash
Either way, cruising around off the pavement in and around New Zealand’s Fiordlands and Mt. Cook National Parks earlier this month in a diesel Toyota Hiace quelled those fears. Quelled them quickly. The steel-belted radials ate up road ruts and the beefy suspension laughed at poorly graded dirt roads, none of which I was supposed to technically be driving on in a rental anyway (sorry faceless insurance company!), but the van loved the dirt, was seemingly called to wander off the pavement any chance it could get.
So the toughness isn’t a concern.
And even if it was, frankly, the sheer practicality of the van won me over. I’ve also often argued that I like keeping the driving and the cargo/sleeping sections separate, as in a truck with a camper shell. Keep the dirty clothes and food smells in the back while I’m driving, thanks, was always my argument. But, and this was a revelation: you can keep food and clothes in storage boxes in a van, sealing their offending odors from the passengers. Brilliant. Who woulda thunk?
Not to mention that when it’s time to set up a stove in the truck, I have to take the stove out, set it up on a table, the ground, the tailgate, or, hypothetically, the little folding-leg table I keep meaning to build but haven’t done so yet, then dig out a gas can from a supply bin. Same with cooking utensils, and that’s before hauling a heavy ice-chilled cooler from the bed.
I never really thought any of that was cumbersome until I cooked a meal in a van with a stove that slid out on a custom shelf, with plates and utensils stacked neatly below. Oh, and a sink with a water pump? Easy peasy in a van. But good luck making that work in a truck with a normal-sized camper.
Of course, none of this even touches on the outrageous luxury of a sleeping space that easily accommodates two tall adults, with room to spare, on a mattress that’s always there, without requiring blowing up, or assembling, or erecting above the roof. My god, the convenience.
Add in sliding doors on both sides meaning easy accessibility without crawling over a tailgate, and that’s it. You win, vans. I’m in. I’m hooked.
Figuring all of this out in too-perfect-to-be-real New Zealand surely helps, as the van culture is breathtakingly diverse and incredible and has long existed before the #vanlife movement took off in the states. Kiwis make vans out of anything, actually. Walk along any body of water in that blessed country and you’ll see rows of wagons made into vans, sedans turned into vans, I even saw a motorcycle towing a small, self-built trailer with a bed and some intriguingly-designed drawers that I’ll consider to be a van too.
Campgrounds full of travelers in vans is surprisingly charming, and, with everybody in a self-contained vehicle, far quieter than car campgrounds in the states, with tents everywhere blaring music and loud conversations.
I’ve learned my lesson. Vans are the superior overland travel vehicle. Ours wasn’t even four-wheel-drive, but obviously, there are plenty out there and they’re drool-worthy. I’ve got my eye on a Mitsubishi Delica down in Southern California that’s for sale, and there’s an AWD Chevy Astro in my neighborhood with a for sale sign that’s mighty intriguing. Hell, an AWD Toyota Sienna with the seats taken out (like that badass one up above) would be a formidable gas-sipping house on wheels and if I see one I’m buying it.
Words by Justin Housman